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Black Paint 

A Short Story


By Sitawa Namwalie

Photo by (c) Yonko Kilash on Unsplash.com


Monday, July 27, 2020.


“Muthungu, shut-up!  Wacha upusi. NKT!” 

 

The councillors shout down the one voice of reason, Muthungu. His real name is Louis Njoroge. Louis sits in the board room with his legs crossed; the nails on his long fingers are tipped yellow from non-stop smoking. The councillors, heap more insults on him and he responds by sitting inert waiting for the storm to end. Louis’ eyes move from the one open window to his mobile phone. White smoke from his cigarette curls upwards and disappears. The other windows in the room are shut tight against a cold spell, which has hit the city refusing to leave, even though it is the end of August. 


Louis Njoroge chain-smokes to mask the odour in the Mayor’s board room, permanently soiled by the stink of unwashed bodies and breathing mouths. He will not look at his fellow councillors, instead, his eyes scan a room that is full of cheap MDF board furniture and counterfeit leather, supplied by a Chinese company favoured by the mayor due to its lack of scruples. 


In his well-fitting suit Louis was not the only one who looks out of place in the Mayor’s boardroom; Milka, the mayor’s personal assistant, sits to the mayor’s right, trying to take the minutes of the meeting. The mayor calls her “Jaber, the beautiful one”. She is one of those rarities, a light-skinned Luo, with the looks to qualify as a trophy wife for a rich man, anywhere in Kenya. The sleek hair snaking down her back, is all her own, although some spiteful women claim it is one of those weaves that cost eighty thousand shillings.  


Louis’ gaze returns to Councillor Mwaura whose fat stomach looks ready to break out of his ill-fitting plaid suit. He and Councillor Wafula egg each other on competing to see who can throw the most insults at Louis.


 “Why hasn’t this nguy resigned?” 

 “Wewe wacha ufala, why don’t you leave!”

 “Just ngo, mjinga!  

 “Stop producing the same story. Ati fwata sheria.  Sheria kitu gani!” 

“Mjinga, na do ngooder. You, you can afford to fwata Sheria. Yes? You can afford. Tajiri Wewe. Look at a rich man, telling us about sheria!” 


Mwaura spits out the word “tajiri”, turning it into an insult, his saliva splatters and stains the air.


Councillor Otieno joins the two, and attempts to mimic Muthungu’s St. Mary’s accent. 


“Fwort, fwort, fwort, my father owns half of Nairobi!” NKT. And he will tell us, it was because of hard work!” 


Councillor Amina joins in. 


“Mr. Muthungu, I wonder, wasn’t your grandfather a Mayor? Grandfather mind you, not father. Wee! The first African Mayor! When our grandfathers were still sucking their thumbs, hehe, this one, this one’s grandfather, was grabbing, grabbing. Yes? Grabiosis. His Excellency Mayor Alan Njoroge. Alituangamiza sisi wote, si ndio?” 


Amina turns and stares pointedly at Louis. Laughter bounces around the Mayor’s boardroom and escapes through the one open window. Louis avoids Amina’s eyes, shrugs a shoulder and manages to drain her agitation with indifference. 


Milka ignores the laughter and addresses the mayor. 


“Your excellency, guidance please, what should I record?” 

The mayor too is at a loss. 

“Jaber, even me I don’t know.  Too much code foolish here.”


Milka shrugs her shoulders and returns to staring out of the open window.


********

The Mayor sits at the head of the conference table in ceremonial robes, a gold chain weighs down his chest. He is a tall man with greying temples and deliberate movements contrived to give him poise.  The Mayor is cosseted by his two wives who dote on “Japuonj”, the teacher, branded for the one year spent in teacher training college. He likes to say he was “forced to drop out of college” because of “lack of school fees”. Just like many Africans, he uses visions of heart-rending poverty to confer honour on his personal failings. The truth is rather different, he failed his exams and was discontinued.  


Arrayed around the Mayor are councillors of every description, each with a blinking winking phone lying on the table. Except for “Muthungu”, the mayor, Milka and one or two others, the councillors can’t hide their rough roots. Former Matatu touts? Just a few of them. Some criminal elements? Many! Being a councillor has fallen off the radar of the middle classes and is now a profession owned by a cadre of individuals with the street smarts to fight with no scruples, when elections come around. 


The poor majority of the city, see themselves in these people who like them live in a capricious world where nothing is certain but a brutal death for the trusting. These were the men and few women charged with the task of managing the affairs of Nairobi, the largest and most sophisticated metropolis in East and Central Africa.  

********

 “Nili sema tuwaonyeshe nani boss. Hako kamusungu kali niangalia vibaya, kama mukoloni. Kanafikiria mimi ninani!!  Heh heh!  Ni kaambiya “If you were a woman, I would impregnate you!!! Kali pinduka rangi, kaka turn red kama nyanya!”


Councillor Mwaura has the curious habit of speaking with his whole body. He appears to bounce in his seat, his short frame going up and down in time with the rhythm of his words. The other councillors laugh, at the thought of the look on the face of the mzungu managing director of the petroleum company. Around the table councillors shout their approval. 


“Nani kama wewe!” and “Ndume!” “Jogoo mwenyewe!” 


More ribald absurdity follows and is piled onto Mwaura’s gem. Louis feels strangely let down as he watches Milka laugh along with the other councillors. She turns to the Mayor and speaks.  


“Your Excellency, should I include the part about impregnating the mzungu in the minutes?”

The Mayor beams at Milka, his already deep voice loses an octave.  


“Jaber, really, code foolish is too much today. Leave that part out, Jaber.”


Louis makes a last-ditch effort to bring dignity to the Council's proceedings.


“Mwaura you must be joking.  You clearly don’t know what you’ve done.” 


Louis flinches at his misplaced St. Mary’s accent, which sounds suddenly weedy in the presence of those robust other ways of speaking English. He stands up to face Mwaura and becomes aware of the warm cloying odour of unwashed armpits mocking him as he shouts at the man.  

  

“Well let me tell you, you have insulted the head of the company which contributes the most to the Mayor’s Christmas tree and other charitable causes.”  


No one pays him any attention.  


“The Mayor will tell you Mr. Smith is not to be joked with. He singlehandedly makes the Mayor look good at Christmas, with his generous donations of food and clothes for the poor. His company has a scholarship fund, for needy children…and his links to the powers that be are impeccable! And ….”


Mwaura cuts into Muthungu’s speech as usual.


“Ipekebo, ni nini!  Kizungu mingi na catwalk!  Sasa huyu anasema nini? Just speak nomo Engrish, we can all hear, umm lubbish.” 


Louis fumes on.


“I’m the one who has to go and face Mr. Smith with that appalling little joke of yours playing in the background.”


Mwaura ignores him, he is too busy lapping up the admiration from his fellow councillors, his shirt tails have escaped from his trousers as usual, creating a picture of untidiness he has worn since childhood.  

********

It was in that meeting that Louis began to understand the futility of his efforts. His mind turned to his wife Rose who had grown tired of his constant complaining about the councillors and their shortcomings. She wanted him to move on and find himself another job. He remembered the point at which she quit his fight. Again he heard her voice as he drove home that night. 


“Baby you’ve tried your best, God knows, but you can’t be that one good man in a sea of idiocy?  Life doesn’t work that way.” 


And then she had lowered her voice to a whisper, as if she was telling him a secret. 


“Baby? You can’t keep atoning for your grandfather’s sins. That was his life, you must live yours.” 


Louis drove his old Volvo, on roads too threadbare to last much longer. As he drove home that night he saw the city with the eyes of a stranger. The headlights pierced the pitch blackness, revealing mounds of garbage lining the streets, the burnt-out frames of broken down vehicles left to rot on the side of the road, and now and then, he caught the whiff of an animal carcass, putrefying, somewhere in the darkness. “Ten years and this is all I have to show for it.” The smell of defeat made him raise his windows to keep out the smell of fermenting garbage.    


It had been a particularly difficult meeting, one in which new levels of the absurd had been reached. The scenes from the council meeting came back to him along with the loud abuse thrown at him by his fellow councillors. He raised his voice this time. Shouted back, his back stiff with resistance.  


“No, the Council will not hire a private company to collect garbage!”  


He threw sheaves of paper onto the table. Names of those behind the private companies awarded tenders by the council. Five of them were councillors. He pointed fingers. 


“Mwaura, of course, Otieno, Kinoti, Amina. Wafula, you surprise me! Maybe you’ve all forgotten, we just bought 100 garbage collection trucks. They cost the tax payer a pretty penny and ….”


Only Wafula replied. 


“Ati you are surprised, kwani mimi sina tumbo NKT!?”  


They sneered at him, unafraid. In that meeting, the Mayor sat silent looking magnanimous like a great Solomon. Louis was the only one who knew this to be the silence of a snake. Once again, the Mayor was breaking promises of support made to him in his private chambers.  Louis sighed and bowed his head.

********


Louis drove into the ornate wrought iron gates of his home. Despite himself, he felt his spirits lift as the watchman opened the gate. He loved this old house. It had belonged to his grandparents and carried his best memories of them. He drove down the long driveway, crunching the gravel, past the jacaranda trees which grew in purple profusion, reminding him it was October and that the year was almost gone. The old stone house emerged from the darkness and Louis drove into the garage and parked his battered Volvo next to his wife’s silver Rav 4. Louis sat and closed his eyes for a moment. He breathed in the heavy scent of the jasmine, which clung to the garage wall and felt his shoulders loosen as the day washed away.  


He opened the front door and walked into a generous reception hall. This was a house with classic proportions, built in the 1930s. The reception hall was where his wife, Rose, displayed family photographs and memorabilia. There were several photographs of Louis with his grandfather, marking the passage of time, as he grew from childhood to manhood. Louis’ favourite photograph was of his grandfather in the ceremonial mayoral robes, a floor length red and black velvet gown trimmed in black and white fur, a heavy waist-length elaborate gold chain and a ridiculous black hat on his head. It always made him smile. 


Louis stepped closer and peered at his grandfather’s image. He saw a tall man, standing with head high, eyes holding the future. For a moment he remembered a boy’s pride in being the mayor’s grandson. But that memory was quickly replaced by gloom as recollections of his grandfather’s fall came back. It was the Monday after his thirteenth birthday when he stepped into a barrage of whispers at school and was followed by eyes trying to hide. Even Father O’Brien his Math teacher was careful with him, avoiding the customary almost-brawling style he used to push all his best students to think beyond the obvious. At first he thought he had snot on his face. He opened the lid of his desk and wiped his face with the sleeve of his sweater. But the strange looks did not stop. 


At break-time the mystery intensified. 


“Njoroge, so your grandfather is a mega thief.” 


The declaration came from a posse of sniggering Fourth Form boys, standing together at the entrance to the toilets. It was clear they had been waiting for him. Louis didn’t know what to make of this assertion and kept walking. But the word “thief, thief, thief” choked the air in school. By the end of the day, it was clear there was something very wrong when even Steven the driver, offered him just a weak “Sasa?” and then withdrew into silence. 


When he got home, after the 30-minute drive, he found both his Mum and Dad waiting for him in the sitting room in sombre mood. Even twenty years later his heart still hammered as he remembered the front page of the newspaper and the enlarged image of his grandfather looking old and defeated below a headline screaming in black bold letters, “Land Thief Mayor Resigns!”

********


That evening Louis kept the promise he had made to his wife not to bring the council into their home. He sat with his family, listening to reports of their day. His son Junior, regaled him with the victory of his football match. Shiru his daughter begged him to come to school to watch her piano recital the following week. The children talked him into reading them a bed-time story and for a few hours that day he escaped.


But the respite didn’t last long, Rose was in bed reading when he walked into the bedroom with Mwaura’s name falling out of his mouth before he could stop himself.  


“Louis, this is the limit, you’ve brought that man into our bedroom one time too many. I don’t want to hear that man’s name again. Look at you, do you know how you sound? Mwaura! Mwaura! That’s all you talk about. You even dream about that scoundrel? A few nights ago, you were mumbling his name in your sleep.  Enough is enough. I want you out of the Council.  It’s been ten years. You can’t make a difference in that den of degraded buffoonery.” 


His wife lay hidden under a duvet. Only her head and neck were visible as she peered at him over the top of her reading glasses. She still held the book she had been reading. Louis looked at her and sighed in despair. He sat down on the bed and released a whiff of soothing lavender perfume. He knew his wife was right. He wanted to leave, start something new. But how? He had dedicated ten years to what he now acknowledged had been pointlessness. 


What was even worse, Louis had lost the esteem of his friends and family who were aghast with him in the first place, when he announced he had taken a job with the Nairobi City Council.  He remembered how his father had spoken through his teeth a thing he did only when he was especially incensed.


“People like us don’t join the City Council.  And you, you have an MBA from Princeton University, for heaven’s sake, I didn’t spend all that money on your education for you to come back home and throw your life away like this.  Come on, you can join any top-notch company, Coca Cola, IBM, Unilever, that’s where you belong.” 


Convenient amnesia erased the family’s legacy at the Council, the very legacy which had created the wealth which allowed Louis’ father to pay for that expensive education at Princeton that the senior Mr Njoroge loved to brag about.


“No scholarship, nothing like that. We Njoroge’s pay our way.” 


Louis looked around at the vast bedroom, taking in the oak beamed ceiling, the bay window, the brass chandeliers and the dark wooden furniture, and sighed again as he remembered the insults hurled at him by councillor Amina. Yes he was a tajiri. His grandfather had made sure of that.

********


The Mayor sat with a slightly pained expression on his face. Unlike Louis, he had accepted that it was futile to make any comment, it would only prolong the nonsense. Instead he wrapped himself in a shroud of dignity and waited the full minute it took for the laughter to subside. Banging his gavel on the table he eventually brought calm and began to speak. Milka took notes with her left hand moving smoothly across the blank page and filling it up with incomprehensible shorthand strokes. 


“We are gathered here today to discuss a most grave matter.” 


He spoke, enunciating every word in an accent which defied categorization. Just when you were sure he was speaking the Queen’s English, the mayor veered off centre exposing what sounded like Luo roots. And then there was the give-away Kariobangi accent with its slow vowels and incongruent hard consonants. The Mayor valiantly followed his accent, reigning it in and failing over and over throughout the four-hour meeting. At no time did he abandon the quest to speak the Queens English. The more times he fell off the pedestal the more times he climbed back on, ready to try again. His labours had created a consistent accent like no other.    


“Gentlemen, gentlemen we are here to discuss weighty matters. Let us be serious. I call the meeting to order. Wafula tell us again, what may be the problem?” 


The Mayor addressed Councillor Wafula conferring his benevolence from a great height. 


Wafula coughed to clear his throat and all heads turned to him.


“You all know, in the last council meeting we agreed to raise the rates for outside advertising by five hundred percent. Well we did it. And we informed the companies of the new rates when they came to renew their licenses. Some of them complained as usual. But we didn’t expect any problems, they always complain, but they always pay up don’t they?”  


Wafula asked no one in particular.


“This time they all refused. All of them. They wrote back through their leader. I have the letter here. I want to table it in this meeting. I will read it, it is very short.” 


“Yes Wafula, go ahead, let us hear the missive from Mr. Smith. And let Ja… Milka have the letter when you’re through Councillor.” 


The Mayor’s addressed Milka with his soft cotton voice again.


“You will file it, won’t you Jaber?”


Councillor Amina, a large Muslim woman covered from head to toe in a black Hijab, did not miss the give-away exchange between the mayor and Milka. In a low voice, she started singing the nonsense song she used to bait Milka. 


“Mama Milka, milka, Mama Milka, milka, Milka bonyo, milka, Milka siriri….”


Milka’s poise flew away and Louis watched as she turned to the mayor, pleading with her eyes, for him to rescue her from Amina’s taunting before some of the other councillors joined in her mischief.


The mayor cleared his throat and gave Amina a stern look, which shut her up.  Wafula cleared his throat, looked around the table to make sure he had the attention of his fellow councillors and started reading.


“Your Worship the Mayor,


I hope this letter finds you well. Further to our discussion with your Mr. Mwaura, I would like to confirm that the twenty companies listed in this letter will not be paying the increased rates for outside advertising as stipulated in the Council’s communication on 19th August, 2000.  


We are appalled at the unilateral and usurious decision to raise the rates yet again and this time by 500%. We note with concern, this is the second time the Council has seen fit to raise the rates over the last twelve months. On behalf of my colleagues, we would like to register our protest in the strongest terms possible.


Our appeals to the Council have fallen on deaf ears. We regret the action we have taken but feel we have been left with no other option.  


The twenty companies listed below have instructed me to inform you that we have referred the matter to our lawyers for further legal action.

Faithfully yours,


Mr. John Smith

Managing Director

X Company”


Wafula finished reading and looked up joining the uproar as the gathered councillors became a mob out to lynch all imaginary enemies before them. The odours in the room intensified and Louis lit a cigarette waving it around to dispel the stench with little success. 


“Heh heh, who do those mzungu’s think they are.” Ati they are not going to pay. “There is nothing like that!” 


“This is our country.” 


“Tutafanya tunacho taka kufanya, na sasa hivi tulicho amua kufanya nikuwaongezea hao matajiri viwango vya ada!”  


Amina shouted at the absent Mr. Smith.   


Mwaura took the baton seamlessly, he was almost frothing at the mouth and barely able to contain his agitation.  


“Heh, heh wata juta, wata tuona.” Tupake rangi nyeusi!”


Louis’s voice brought crumbly English back.


“Excuse me Mr Mwaura you’ve lost me. Paint what black?” 


The Mayor speaks loudly in English his voice raised above the noise in the room.   


“Mr Mayor, the solution is very simple. Hiso masign boards zao, tu pake rangi nyeusi, leo, today. Wata ongea wachoke.” 


The Mayor leaned towards Louis and spoke with certainty. 


“They have gone to court.  Muthungu, eh, I mean Louis, here will tell you when a matter is in court, our hands are tied. We can’t even talk about it. There will be a court injunction. I am sure their lawyers will move quickly to block us. We won’t even be able to collect the old rates until the case is finished.  And you know our courts, six months, is the shortest time the case is likely to take, but if we have bad luck it could be two years or five!


Mwaura, shrugged.


“But if we have already painted the signs, what can the courts do?”  


Louis turned from face to face and could see the Mayor and other councillors listening to Mwaura, contemplating his ridiculous idea. He almost choked on his cigarette. 


“Mr Mayor with all due respect, you can’t take Mwaura’s suggestion seriously. It’s a joke. Right Mwaura, it’s meant as a joke?” 


He looked to his nemesis for assurance and watched the assembled councillor’s faces brighten one after the other as the idea took hold of them.


“But it’s against the law! It’s against the law to interfere in a case before the courts; we risk being charged with contempt of court. Mr Mayor you will be directly implicated, it is your neck on the line.”  


He hoped the directness of the consequences would bring the Mayor back from the brink of the latest lunacy.  


“No, I don’t think that’s true, Louis. All my time perusing the law, I have never seen a law saying painting bill boards black is against the law, and any way what can they do, the work will have been done, and I suggest we keep painting them until those buggers get tired.”  


“Watachoka tuu!”  


Mwuara shouted in support of the mayor, even Milka looked impressed and gave the mayor a smile and thumbs up.

  

“And you know Mr. Muthungu, the courts are no problem.” 


Otieno the councillor on Louis’s right whispers conspiratorially. 


“Think about your grandfather. His losing streak in the council cannot be compared, isn’t it? Aki your Guka. Heh. Even me, I fear him. That’s how he got all his wealth, by losing on purpose, yes?” 


Louis leant away from his tormentor attempting to escape the words and the pungent smell of sweat.  


“Eeh, stop showing off. How many cases have you won, all these years eh! I will tell you if you can’t remember, three that’s how many, just like your grandfather, but not like your grandfather are you? The old Mzee Njoroge was honest, he went after what he wanted, unlike his pretender grandson. NKT.” 


Otieno watched with a smile of satisfied malice at Louis’s growing discomfort.


Louis had to agree. He remembered how his grandfather, went after what he wanted. And got it. Until he lost everything. The long forgotten rumours whispered about the house he had inherited from his grandfather came back to him, as he listened to Otieno. That it had belonged to an old white man, a Mr Adams. Louis had never been able to forget that name, try as he might. He recalled the snippets of conversations that helped him piece together his grandfather’s less than honourable past. That his grandfather had walked in one day with hired goons and simply taken over that house and many others – as restitution for old colonial crimes. The hypocrisy of someone who had been a home-guard and was one of those who had joined the ranks of defenders of the colonial order, claiming restitution for colonial crimes did not escape Louis. The old man, Mr Adams whose home had been taken away, had immigrated to Australia, with nothing. That he had….No it was no use remembering.


Louis’ mind came back to the room and he became conscious of the fidgeting, discomfort, filling the room. He knew that  one by one, the councillors had began to realise what not being able to collect the rates from the billboards would mean for each one of them. Louis watched Councillor Otieno, take his phone out of his shirt pocket and watched as he typed a message under the table. Otieno curled his lip at him when he realised that Louis was watching him. Then he shouted.


“I support Mwaura’s idea. It can work! Yes, yes, it’s a great idea. I volunteer myself, to paint those sign boards.” 




Before Louis eyes, the Mayor became transformed and became a general marshalling his troops. 


“Gentlemen and the few ladies, we have a negotiated agreement then. Very well, very well. You Mwaura, you will lead the painting. It must happen at night, tonight, start at midnight! Start with the petroleum companies. Begin with Muthaiga and then Lavington and Westlands, don’t forget Karen, that’s where they live. The bosses must wake up and find the boards right outside their homes painted black. They must know we are not joking. We need ten teams, there are a lot of signboards to paint. I will sign the requisition for the fire engines. The pick-ups and other vehicles are no problem.”  


The planning continued with military precision. As the meeting ended Louis was in his habitual pose, with his head in his hands.  

********

The next day Louis Njoroge sat grinding his teeth in the mayor’s board room. Of course he was alone facing the forest of microphones, flashing cameras and journalists. A black folder with the Council’s statement on the blackened billboards lay open on the table in front of him. Smoke from his sixth cigarette choked the room. He was breaking his one cardinal rule – never be caught smoking on television. Louis sniffed. The emboldened stench in the room was like the rage building up within him. He clenched his jaw in a vain attempt to control his anger. As usual he was the one who had to face the incredulous contempt of all the journalists as he struggled to explain the latest Council outrage. He took another long drag of his cigarette. He looked up, into the eyes of the smirking BBC journalist and tensed in anticipation.


“Mr. Njoroge can you confirm the rumours, did the Mayor himself give instructions for the city’s billboards to be painted black? 


Sitawa Namwalie is a writer and poet, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her works have appeared in several publications around the world.


"Black Paint": A Short Story by Sitawa Namwalie

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